Victoria's Self-Fashioning: curating the royal image for dynasty, nation, and empire

Lead Research Organisation: Historic Royal Palaces
Department Name: Kensington Palace

Abstract

Queen Victoria's name is used to identify an era. Over her long reign the British Empire covered a quarter of the globe. The birth of photography, and an explosion in print culture and the press, allowed her image to touch its furthest reaches. Her image, painted and sculpted, still dominates public spaces scattered throughout every continent. The narrative of Victoria's life has been rehearsed continuously since her death, testament to an enduring significance of her legacy. However, these narratives have not cast her as the focus of a culturally political study. Instead, orthodox approaches have set her up as a curiously inert figure, detached from public life and from the political shaping of the monarchy.

This project challenges these orthodoxies by examining Victoria herself as a pro-active political agent in the construction of an image for nineteenth century monarchy, and therefore directly implicated in what would become the Queen Victoria phenomenon. Bringing together an international group of scholars from the academy, research institutes, museums and collections, and heritage organisations, we propose three related workshops, and a conference.

The first workshop will discuss Victoria's creation of her own image, and the ways in which she managed her conflicted role, as a Queen Regnant, but also a wife and mother. Through a consideration of her surviving dress, together with the royal photographic collection, and Victoria's own amateur art works, it will assess how this image took physical form and was tested, honed, and developed by her, to serve the needs of the monarchy over the seventy-four years of her reign.

The second workshop will map the journey of this self-curated image from Victoria's private sphere to the public realm, and particularly across the British Empire. It will explore her involvement in the commissioning and purchase of painted, sculpted and photographic images to celebrate her family and its dynastic ambition. It will investigate their dissemination through print culture, and a burgeoning press, and their movement and use through many contexts, locally and globally. This will include the ways in which the image was used to counter critical responses to Queen and Empress, in attempts to quench the flames of colonial resentment at British rule in ceremonial events or to challenge republican sentiment from groups like the Chartists. This workshop will also explore how Victoria, as curator, presented the material of her life, for a public audience, in the first museum displays in her celebration, and how these were received.

The third workshop will discuss how the image of Victoria might be curated today in the digital sphere: how this material can be made available not only to scholars but to a wide, global public fascinated by Victoria. This will involve devising ways in which a project can be undertaken across a set of institutions around the globe, providing a methodological and practical template for further projects nationally and internationally. The workshop will consider ways in which the 'digital museum' can challenge the notion of the physical ownership of the material culture associated with this globally important figure, and can allow curation by a wider and more diverse audience.

We will inaugurate this project in late 2018, and bring it to a conclusion with the conference in 2019, the bicentenary of Queen Victoria's birth, which will bring it a special resonance. The conference will consider and test the project as a whole, synthesizing the workshop debates. The anniversary will also allow us to empower the pilot digital projects, which we will devise with the aim to touch a contemporary international audience in locations where her image still presides in sculpted form, or which are named after her, for instance, and use them to ask how Victoria's contested legacy is understood now.

Planned Impact

Victoria's Self-Fashioning has been designed to have impact in two related ways. First, we shall achieve impact through the content of our project; that is, the re-assessment of Victoria's image and the ways in which the queen curated her material legacy in the interests of monarchy and empire will change public and scholarly understanding of the queen and the legacy of the world she created. Second, we shall achieve impact by developing new digital curatorial methods for the interpretation and presentation of material culture, methods which can then be used for any project.

Particular impact activities will include:

Victoria's Bicentenary
Our project is scheduled to coincide with the bicentenary of Victoria's birth in 2019, an appropriate moment for a critical reassessment of her image, her approach to queenship, and the material legacy she curated. We aim to overturn the familiar images of the queen as the obsessive widow ossified by mourning or the dour matriarch who withdrew her presence from political life, and reveal a queen committed to nation, monarchy and empire, and an active agent in their development. Because our project will directly involve scholars from museums and collections leading this commemoration, this reassessment will re-shape the presentation of and debate about Victoria and her legacy across these institutions. This impact will, of course, be substantial in the activities of the HRP and our project partner, the Royal Collection, but will extend to institutions such as the V&A and Museum of London. Moreover, we explicitly address how to curate and present Victoria's image today in a post-colonial world, our impact will extend around the globe, first, in museums in India, New Zealand and Canada from which our participants will be coming, and more widely thereafter.

Public Events and Conference
HRP, which includes Kensington Palace, Queen Victoria's birthplace, and the site of an early royal museum in her commemoration, has a network of many thousand members and patrons who can be drawn into the subject, through public events. The major event will be a two-day conference at the end of the project, which will enable our project's impact on the general public, as well as providing a springboard for further public and educational events at Kensington Palace.

Websites
The web will be a crucial aspect of our impact activity. Films made at the workshops will be available through the websites of HRP and the Paul Mellon Centre, and discussions are in train with other digital platforms, including that maintained by the Royal Collection Trust. Again, this will not only provide impact through the content of the film, but will also provide impact by offering a template for the animation of material culture online, which can be be used by other museums and galleries, local historical organisations, amenity societies and others.

Museum Practices
While our project will have an immediate impact on museum displays crafted for the bicentenary commemoration, it will also have impact in the longer term, helping shape major research projects in collections holding Victoria's material legacy. These include a research project to log the first collection at the V+A, future displays and discussions planned in Germany, and elsewhere, as well as the cataloguing of Victoria's wardrobe at HRP.

Cultural Events
By involving broadcasters, theatre-makers, and other cultural practitioners in the project, we shall ensure that public cultural events such as radio and TV broadcasts, theatre productions, lectures and education events will be generated nationally and locally. Of particular importance will be the impact for post-colonial communities, not least in the UK. We shall ensure that publicity and marketing associated with events at HRP and elsewhere are directed towards these communities, in order to ensure a diverse marking of the bicentenary and thinking about the legacy of Victoria in the future.

Publications

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Description This project is still on-going. Two research workshops of a series of three have been held, and brought together 35 scholars for workshop 1, and 37 scholars for workshop 2, from both museums and universities in the UK, Germany, Belgium, USA, Canada, India, and Australia. Two discussion forums were held at the University of Oxford, which brought together faculty and representatives of from the student body, 8 discussants to forum 2, 11 discussants to forum 2, to debate means by which recent developments in digital technologies, including those in the sciences, could be mobilised in the humanities to assist with a more diversified, decentralised curation of a global subject.
Exploitation Route Too early to say (the award is still active)
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

 
Description Two paintings owned by HM The Queen have been re-attributed to a different artist. This information will be added to the publically accessible Royal Collection Trust collection database at the next information up-date round. The award is still on-going. There will be further findings.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Creative Economy,Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural